Hill ER doctor recovers from near-death with COVID-19

Posted 5/27/20

Dr. Jack Kelly, long-time Chestnut Hill resident and emergency room specialist at three area Einstein Medical Centers, is back to treating COVID-19 patients after contracting the disease himself. by …

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Hill ER doctor recovers from near-death with COVID-19

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Dr. Jack Kelly, long-time Chestnut Hill resident and emergency room specialist at three area Einstein Medical Centers, is back to treating COVID-19 patients after contracting the disease himself.

by Len Lear

Dr. Jack Kelly, 62, a Chestnut Hill resident for 31 years and Mt. Airy native, had decided to cut way back on his hours earlier this year after decades of service as an emergency room specialist and 30 years as a professor of emergency medicine at four Philadelphia medical schools. However, after finishing a shift on March 16 (Dr. Kelly works in the ER at all three area Einstein Medical Centers in Olney, Elkins Park and East Norriton Township), he felt unusually depleted and achy with a stuffy nose and temperature of 99.

On March 21 Dr. Kelly had a Covid-19 test. The following day he became ill with “severe shakes and rigors.” That night two of his ER colleagues examined him and found “bilateral ground-glass infiltrates and a left lower lobe pneumonia.” After he was given IV antibiotics, the colleagues and Dr. Kelly's wife, Fran Sirico-Kelly, who is also a doctor, wanted Dr. Kelly to be admitted to the hospital, but he insisted on “toughing it out at home.” (On March 28 the results of the COVID-19 test came back positive!)

The following five days were sheer hell, even though Dr. Kelly's colleagues “texted me every day. They were really great!” Dr. Kelly self-quarantined in the family's guest bedroom. His wife brought food (a double cappuccino and fresh-baked muffin were particularly appreciated) and medicine to the upstairs landing.

“The viral symptoms were brutal,” he said. “Severe body aches, no energy at all. Every breath, associated with dull central chest achiness, was hard work. When I developed shakes and rigors, I'd burrow under five blankets to cope … Every day got worse … My wife worried if she would find me alive in the morning. … I was alone. It was my personal struggle.”

It took eight days before Dr. Kelly's temperature returned to normal. By April 1 he had lost 10 pounds along with all of his strength, but then he began to feel somewhat better each day and eventually was able to take two-mile walks with his wife and then begin strength training. Three weeks after he started to self-quarantine, he was pretty much back to normal, having regained six pounds and having his heart rate return to the usual 65-70 beats per minute. (It had been between 100 and 105 for quite a while.)

In late April Dr. Kelly was healthy enough to return to work, but his family was adamant that this was a bad decision. “My wife was freaking out,” he said, “and my siblings were all angry that I was returning to the front lines, but it is what I was meant to do. I love to be able to look a patient in the eye and say, 'We know how to fix this.'

“Now I tell patients I had the same COVID-19 they have, and I am able to get their attention. It is a great connection. I felt fine about going back to work. I took an oath and agreed to do this a long time ago. I made an agreement with myself to help heal other people. It is our job to be at the bedside in the most difficult cases.”

Dr. Kelly is a graduate of La Salle High School, La Salle University and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (where he met his wife-to-be). He also earned a master's degree in molecular biology from Villanova University. He also wanted to mention his father, who was “drafted by the Yankees as a shortstop, but when Pearl Harbor happened, he signed up in the Navy and wound up on an aircraft carrier. He did play baseball in the Hot Stovers League for years after the war.”

According to Dr. Kelly, the three Einstein Medical Centers have treated about 1,000 COVID-19 patients all together. He has treated about 100 himself in the last four weeks. He said he doesn't know how many Covid-19 patients at the Einstein centers have died, but a current Philadelphia magazine article said that as of April 21, the number was 66.

“One of the hardest parts (about this virus) is that we knew nothing and still know almost nothing about it,” said Dr. Kelly. “I studied for 40 years to be an expert and then stepped into this and knew nothing. It was the same thing with HIV in the 1980s. It had just been described in the medical literature. It took us six years in the '80s to discover how to test for HIV and treat it, due to the hard work of virology scientists. Now it hasn't even been six months into this pandemic.

“Look at the way we are trying to open up the economy. There is no strict playbook for it. I walk around Chestnut Hill now and still see about half of the people not wearing masks. There may be a second wave (of infections), and we may not be able to treat them all. And a large percentage of Americans do not take care of their health.”

On the other hand, Dr. Kelly would gladly do it all over again. “This has been such a great ride. It's one of the best jobs in the world. You're able to help people in their most difficult hours.”

You can reach Len Lear at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

coronavirus, news

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